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A Cotswold Village

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London is becoming miserably hot and dusty; everybody who can get away is rushing off, north, south, east, and west, some to the seaside, others to pleasant country houses. Who will fly with me westwards to the land of golden sunshine and silvery trout streams, the land of breezy uplands and valleys nestling under limestone hills, where the scream of the railway whistle is seldom heard and the smoke of the factory darkens not the long summer days? Away, in the smooth "Flying Dutchman"; past Windsor's glorious towers and Eton's playing-fields; past the little village and churchyard where a century and a half ago the famous "Elegy" was written, and where, hard by "those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade," yet rests the body of the mighty poet, Gray. How those lines run in one's head this bright summer evening, as from our railway carriage we note the great white dome of Stoke House peeping out amid the elms! whilst every field reminds us of him who wrote those lilting stanzas long, long ago.

"Ah, happy hills! ah, pleasing shade!  Ah, fields, beloved in vain!Where once my careless childhood strayed,  A stranger yet to pain:I feel the gales that from ye blowA momentary bliss bestow;As waving fresh their gladsome wingMy weary soul they seem to soothe,And redolent of joy and youth,To breathe a second spring."

But soon we are flashing past Reading, where Sutton's nursery gardens are bright with scarlet and gold, and blue and white; every flower that can be made to grow in our climate grows there, we may be sure. But there is no need of garden flowers now, when the fields and hedges, even the railway banks, are painted with the lovely blue of wild geraniums and harebells, the gold of birdsfoot trefoil and Saint John's wort, and the white and pink of convolvulus or bindweed. We are passing through some of the richest scenery in the Thames valley. There, on the right, is Mapledurham, a grand mediaeval building, surrounded by such a wealth of stately trees as you will see nowhere else. The Thames runs practically through the grounds. What a glorious carpet of gold is spread over these meadows when the buttercups are in full bloom! Now comes Pangbourne, with its lovely weir, where the big Thames trout love to lie. Pangbourne used to be one of the prettiest villages on the river; but its popularity has spoilt it.

As we pass onwards, many other country houses--Purley, Basildon, and Hardwick--with their parks and clustering cottages, add their charm to the view. There are the beautiful woods of Streatley: hanging copses clothe the sides of the hills, and pretty villages nestle amid the trees. But soon the scene changes: the glorious valley Father Thames has scooped out for himself is left behind; we are crossing the chalk uplands. On all sides are vast stretches of unfenced arable land, though here and there a tiny village with its square-towered Norman church peeps out from an oasis of green fields and stately elm trees. On the right the Chiltern Hills are seen in the background, and Wittenham Clump stands forth--a conspicuous object for miles. The country round Didcot reminds one very much of the north of France: between Calais and Paris one notices the same chalk soil, the same flat arable fields, and the same old-fashioned farmhouses and gabled cottages.

But now we have entered the grand old Berkshire vale. "Fields and hedges, hedges and fields; peace and plenty, plenty and peace. I should like to take a foreigner down the vale of Berkshire in the end of May, and ask him what he thought of old England." Thus wrote Charles Kingsley forty years ago, when times were better for Berkshire farmers. But the same old fields and the same old hedges still remain--only we do not appreciate them as much as did the author of "Westward Ho!"

Steventon, that lovely village with its gables and thatched roofs, its white cottage walls set with beams of blackest oak, its Norman church in the midst of spreading chestnuts and leafy elms, appears from the railway to be one of the most old-fashioned spots on earth. This vale is full of fine old trees; but in many places the farmers have spoilt their beauty by lopping off the lower branches because the grass will not grow under their wide-spreading foliage. It is only in the parks and woodlands that the real glory of the timber remains.

And now we may notice what a splendid hunting country is this Berkshire vale. The fields are large and entirely grass; the fences, though strong, are all "flying" ones--posts and rails, too, are frequent in the hedges. Many a fine scamper have the old Berkshire hounds enjoyed over these grassy pastures, where the Rosy Brook winds its sluggish course; and we trust they will continue to do so for many years to come. Long may that day be in coming when the sound of the horn is no longer heard in this delightful country!

High up on the hill the old White Horse soon appears in view, cut in the velvety turf of the rolling chalk downs. But, in the words of the old ballad,

"The ould White Horse wants zettin' to rights."

He wants "scouring" badly. A stranger, if shown this old relic, the centre of a hundred legends, famous the whole world over, would find it difficult to recognise any likeness to a fiery steed in those uncertain lines of chalk. Nevertheless, this is the monument King Alfred made to commemorate his victory over the Danes at Ashdown. So the tradition of the country-side has had it for a thousand years, and shall a thousand more.

The horse is drawn as galloping. Frank Buckland took the following measurements of him: The total length is one hundred and seventy yards; his eye is four feet across; his ear fifteen yards in length; his hindleg is forty-three yards long. Doubtless the full proportions of the White Horse are not kept scoured nowadays; for a few weeks ago I was up on the hill and took some of the measurements myself. I could not make mine agree with Frank Buckland's: for instance, the ear appeared to be seven yards only in length, and not fifteen; so that it would seem that the figure is gradually growing smaller. It is the head and forelegs that want scouring worst of all. There is little sign of the trench, two feet deep, which in Buckland's time formed the outline of the horse; the depth of the cutting is now only a matter of a very few inches.

The view from this hill is a very extensive one, embracing the vale from Bath almost to Reading the whole length of the Cotswold Hills, as well as the Chilterns, stretching away eastwards towards Aylesbury, and far into Buckinghamshire. Beneath your feet lie many hundred thousand acres of green pastures, varied in colour during summer and autumn by golden wheatfields bright with yellow charlock and crimson poppies. It has been said that eleven counties are visible on clear days.

The White Horse at Westbury, further down the line, represents a horse in a standing position. He reflects the utmost credit on his grooms; for not only are his shapely limbs "beautifully and wonderfully made," but the greatest care is taken of him. The Westbury horse is not in reality nearly so large as this one at Uffington, but he is a very beautiful feature of the country. I paid him a visit the other day, and was surprised to find he was very much smaller than he appears from the railway. Glancing over a recent edition of Tom Hughes' book, "The Scouring of the White Horse," I found the following lines:--

"In all likelihood the pastime of 1857 will be the last of his race; for is not the famous Saxon (or British) horse now scheduled to an Act of Parliament as an ancient monument which will be maintained in time to come as a piece of prosaic business, at the cost of other than Berkshire men reared within sight of the hill?"

Alas! it is too true. There has been no pastime since 1857.

It would have been a splendid way of commemorating the "diamond jubilee" if a scouring had been organised in 1897. Forty years have passed since the last pastime, with its backsword play and "climmin a greasy pole for a leg of mutton," its race for a pig and a cheese; and, oddly enough, the previous scouring had taken place in the year of the Queen's accession, sixty-one years ago. It would be enough to make poor Tom Hughes turn in his grave if he knew that the old White Horse had been turned out to grass, and left to look after himself for the rest of his days!

Those were grand old times when the Berkshire; Gloucestershire, and Somersetshire men amused themselves by cracking each other's heads and cudgel-playing for a gold-laced hat and a pair of buckskin breeches; when a flitch of bacon was run for by donkeys; and when, last, but not least, John Morse, of Uffington, "grinned agin another chap droo hos [horse] collars, a fine bit of spwoart, to be sure, and made the folks laaf." I here quote from Tom Hughes' book, "The Scouring of the White Horse," to which I must refer my readers for further interesting particulars.

There are some days during summer when the sunlight is so beautiful that every object is invested with a glamour and a charm not usually associated with it. Such a day was that of which we write. As we were gliding out of Swindon the sun was beginning to descend. From a Great Western express, running at the rate of sixty miles an hour through picturesque country, you may watch the sun setting amidst every variety of scenery. Now some hoary grey tower stands out against the intense brightness of the western sky; now a tracery of fine trees shades for a time the dazzling light; then suddenly the fiery furnace is revealed again, reflected perhaps in the waters of some stream or amid the reeds and sedges of a mere, where a punt is moored containing anglers in broad wideawake hats. Gradually a dark purple shade steals over the long range of chalk hills; white, clean-looking roads stand out clearly defined miles away on the horizon; the smoke that rises straight up from some ivy-covered homestead half a mile away is bluer than the evening sky--a deep azure blue. The horizon is clear in the south, but in the north-west dark, but not forbidding clouds are rising; fantastic cloudlets float high up in the firmament; rooks coming home to roost are plainly visible several miles away against the brilliant western sky.

This Great Western Railway runs through some of the finest bits of old England. Not long ago, in travelling from Chepstow to Gloucester, we were fairly amazed at the surpassing beauty of the views. It was May-day, and the weather was in keeping with the occasion. The sight of the old town of Chepstow and the silvery Wye, as we left them behind us, was fine enough; but who can describe the magnificent panorama presented by the wide Severn at low tide? Yellow sands, glittering like gold in the dazzling sunshine, stretched away for miles; beyond these a vista of green meadows, with the distant Cotswold Hills rising out of dreamy haze; waters of chrysolite, with fields of malachite beyond; the azure sky overhead flecked with clouds of pearl and opal, and all around the pear orchards in full bloom.

While on the subject of scenery, may I enter a protest against the change the Great Western Railway has lately made in the photographs which adorn their carriages? They used to be as beautiful as one could wish; lately, however, the colouring has been lavished on them with no sparing hand. These "photo-chromes" are unnatural and impossible, whereas the old permanent photographs were very beautiful.

At Kemble, with its old manor house and stone-roofed cottages, we say good-bye to the Vale of White Horse; for we have entered the Cotswolds. Stretching from Broadway to Bath, and from Birdlip to Burford, and containing about three hundred square miles, is a vast tract of hill country, intersected by numerous narrow valleys. Probably at one period this district was a rough, uncultivated moor. It is now cultivated for the most part, and grows excellent barley. The highest point of this extensive range is eleven hundred and thirty-four feet, but the average altitude would not exceed half that height. Almost every valley has its little brook. The district is essentially a "stone country;" for all the houses and most of their roofs are built of the local limestone, which lies everywhere on these hills within a few inches of the surface. There is no difficulty in obtaining plenty of stone hereabouts. The chief characteristics of the buildings are their antiquity and Gothic quaintness. The air is sharp and bracing, and the climate, as is inevitable on the shallow, porous soil of the oolite hills, wonderfully dry and invigorating. "Lands of gold have been found, and lands of spices and precious merchandise; but this is the land of health" Thus wrote Richard Jefferies of the downs, and thus say we of the Cotswolds.

And now our Great Western express is gliding into Cirencester, the ancient capital of the Cotswold country. How fair the old place seems after the dirt and smoke of London! Here town and country are blended into one, and everything is clean and fresh and picturesque. The garish church, as you view it from the top of the market-place, has a charm unsurpassed by any other sacred building in the land. In what that charm lies I have often wondered. Is it the marvellous symmetry of the whole graceful pile, as the eye, glancing down the massive square tower and along the pierced battlements and elaborate pinnacles, finally rests on the empty niches and traceried oriel windows of the magnificent south porch? I cannot say in what the charm exactly consists, but this stately Gothic fane has a grandeur as impressive as it is unexpected, recalling those wondrous words of Ruskin's:

"I used to feel as much awe in gazing at the buildings as on the hills, and could believe that God had done a greater work in breathing into the narrowness of dust the mighty spirits by whom its haughty walls had been raised and its burning legends written, than in lifting the rock of granite higher than the clouds of heaven, and veiling them with their various mantle of purple flower and shadowy pine."


The village is not a hundred miles from London, yet "far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife." A green, well-wooded valley, in the midst of those far-stretching, cold-looking Cotswold Hills, it is like an oasis in the desert.

Up above on the wolds all is bleak, dull, and uninteresting. The air up there is ever chill; walls of loose stone divide field from field, and few houses are to be seen. But down in the valley all is fertile and full of life. It is here that the old-fashioned villagers dwell. How well I remember the first time I came upon it! One fine September evening, having left all traces of railways and the ancient Roman town of Cirencester some seven long miles behind me, with wearied limbs I sought this quiet, sequestered spot. Suddenly, as I was wondering how amid these never ending hills there could be such a place as I had been told existed, I beheld it at my feet, surpassing beautiful! Below me was a small village, nestling amid a wealth of stately trees. The hand of man seemed in some bygone time to have done all that was necessary to render the place habitable, but no more. There were cottages, bridges, and farm buildings, but all were ivy clad and time worn. The very trees themselves appeared to be laden with a mantle of ivy that was more than they could bear. Many a tall fir, from base to topmost twig, was completely robed with the smooth, five-pointed leaves of this rapacious evergreen. Through the thick foliage, of elm and ash and beech, I could just see an old manor house, and round about it, as if for protection, were clustered some thirty cottages. A murmuring of waters filled my ears, and on descending the hill I came upon a silvery trout stream, which winds its way down the valley, broad and shallow, now gently gliding over smooth gravel, now dashing over moss-grown stones and rock. The cottages, like the manor house and farm buildings, are all built of the native stone, and all are gabled and picturesque. Indeed, save a few new cottages, most of the dwellings appeared to be two or three hundred years old. One farmhouse I noted carefully, and I longed to tear away the ivy from the old and crumbling porch, to see if I could not discern some half-effaced inscription telling me the date of this relic of the days of "Merrie England."

This quaint old place appeared older than the rest of the buildings. On enquiry, I learnt that long, long ago, before the present manor house existed, this was the abode of the old squires of the place; but for the last hundred years it had been the home of the principal tenant and his ancestors--yeomen farmers of the old-fashioned school, with some six hundred acres of land. The present occupants appeared to be an old man of some seventy years of age and his three sons. Keen sportsmen these, who dearly love to walk for hours in pursuit of game in the autumn, on the chance of bagging an occasional brace of partridges or a wild pheasant (for everything here is wild), or, in winter, when lake and fen are frostbound, by the river and its withybeds after snipe and wildfowl--for the Cotswold stream has never been known to freeze...!